- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp yesterday abruptly ended the council’s monthly breakfast meeting because a reporter for The Washington Times was recording the proceedings.

“You’re not recording this, are you?” Mrs. Cropp, an at-large Democrat who is running for mayor, said to the reporter. “Stop.”

When the reporter cited the council’s rules allowing the breakfast to be public record, Mrs. Cropp said, “OK, meeting over.”

The Times reporter was the only journalist at the 60-minute meeting.

Later during its legislative session, the council voted 7-6 to hold hearings on a revision of its open-meeting rules before voting them into law.

Mrs. Cropp, who opened the breakfast meetings this year, and other council members have long tried to limit coverage of the meetings, saying they are closed-door, informal sessions. Some members have said the sometimes raucous discussions during the breakfasts could make them look foolish if reported.

The majority of the 13-member council usually attends the breakfast meetings, which are held in a room adjacent to the main council chamber and are funded on a rotating basis by the members’ offices.

Members discuss official business and policies during the catered breakfasts, where an assortment of muffins, fruits and hot dishes are served. Reporters and community activists frequently attend the meetings.

Eleven members attended yesterday’s breakfast: Mrs. Cropp; Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat and mayoral candidate; Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat; Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat; Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat; David A. Catania, at-large independent; Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat; Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat; Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican; Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat; and Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat.

Topics discussed by the council included the police chief’s compensation package, emergency legislation that would allow the fire chief to terminate employees, a political event attended by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and an anti-drunken-driving bill.

Several council members later said the breakfast was an open meeting and subject to press coverage.

“You did nothing wrong,” Mr. Fenty told the reporter.

“I think the breakfast meetings should be open,” Mr. Mendelson told the reporter. “I am not upset that you were recording. If we don’t want you recording, let’s say that at the beginning.”

Under current law, council meetings can be private as long as no “official action of any kind is taken,” said Charlotte Brookins-Hudson, legal counsel to the D.C. Council.

Because no votes are taken, Mrs. Brookins-Hudson said, the breakfast meetings are open only because the chairman says they are.

A major revision under council consideration would require all meetings attended by a quorum — at least seven members — to be open, regardless of whether action is taken.

During its legislative session, the council rejected an attempt by Mr. Evans to table the open-meeting bill, which was proposed by council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 5 Democrat and mayoral candidate.

“I don’t believe this legislation is ready for consideration as evidenced by the fact that a reporter recorded our entire meeting this morning without our knowledge,” he said.

WTOP reporter Mark Segraves noted that his being been thrown out of a breakfast meeting sparked his effort to make such meetings open.

“The [open] meeting law is the cumulative effort of myself … and other members of the Washington press corps who have worked hard to get the meetings open,” he said.

Community activist Dorothy Brizill, who often attends the breakfast meetings, said council members do not understand the role of reporters.

“They don’t get it, they just don’t get it,” she said. “They invite reporters into the meeting, but they say we have to be deaf, dumb and blind, and it just doesn’t work that way.”

Mr. Evans has berated reporters for taking notes during the breakfasts.

Mrs. Ambrose yesterday said she thinks some meetings should be closed. “I think it’s helpful for the council process and making our position and understanding other’s positions if we have closed meetings.”

Mrs. Cropp said reporters should notify council members that they are recording as a “matter of courtesy.”

When asked to explain the difference between recording and taking notes, she said she did not “want to get into that.”

“People ought to be informed that they are being taped,” the mayoral candidate said.

Mrs. Cropp decided to open the breakfasts in early April after repeated requests from reporters. The decision was a sharp change from her position two years ago, when she threw out two reporters who tried to attend a breakfast.

Council members have held breakfast meetings before their monthly legislative sessions since as early as 1991. The next breakfast is scheduled for Sept. 19, after the council returns from summer recess.

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